Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Centennial of the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau

“In the ranks of the wage earners are found young girls, middle-aged and even elderly women; married, single, widowed, separated, and divorced women. There are women who support not only themselves but dependents as well, those who are home-makers in addition to being wage earners. In short the crux of the matter lies in the fact that working women, regardless of their status in other respects, are generally speaking not only producers of economic goods but of future citizens, actually or potentially.”
—Records of the Women’s Bureau

Petition to Establish a Bureau of Labor for Women/tiles/non-collection/6/6-2-womensbureau_Charlotte-Smith-letter-p2_NARA.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In 1886, Charlotte Smith, an early advocate for working women, sent this petition to Representative John J. O’Neill, chairman of the Committee on Labor.
Petition to Establish a Bureau of Labor for Women/tiles/non-collection/6/6-2-womensbureau_Charlotte-Smith-letter-p3_NARA.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In 1886, Charlotte Smith, an early advocate for working women, sent this petition to Representative John J. O’Neill, chairman of the Committee on Labor.
Petition to Establish a Bureau of Labor for Women/tiles/non-collection/6/6-2-womensbureau_Charlotte-Smith-letter-p1_NARA.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In 1886, Charlotte Smith, an early advocate for working women, sent this petition to Representative John J. O’Neill, chairman of the Committee on Labor.
The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, created by Congress 100 years ago on June 5, 1920, still exists today. Established at a time when women were moving into the workforce but were still months away from having the right to vote, the Women’s Bureau studied and advocated for working women. The bureau’s work has affected legislation and labor practices throughout the country.

Public Law 66-259, which created the new bureau, authorized it to “formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” Notably, the law stipulated the director of the bureau be a woman. The Women’s Bureau remains the only federal agency with a congressional mandate to promote the well-being of women in the workforce.

The road to the creation of the Women’s Bureau was neither smooth nor straight. Although the executive branch attempted to create a similar department, it took the intervention and support of Congress to secure permanent status for a Women’s Bureau. In 1886, trailblazer Charlotte Smith, president of the Woman’s National Industrial League, a union she founded, petitioned Representative John J. O’Neill, who chaired the Committee on Labor. Smith asked O’Neill to offer a bill establishing a Bureau of Labor for Women “to gather statistics and data respecting the female industrians of the U.S.” The petition was referred to O’Neill’s committee, but it took no action.

Mary Anderson and James J. Davis/tiles/non-collection/6/6-2-womensbureau_Mary-Anderson-and-Sec-of-Labor_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Mary Anderson testified before Congress on the need for the Women’s Bureau. She served as its first director after Congress created it in 1920. Anderson is pictured here with Secretary of Labor James J. Davis in 1923.
At the turn of the century, prominent “women’s clubs” and social reformers started to lobby on behalf of working women. Their efforts gained little traction or support from trade union leaders, who saw women in the workforce as a threat to their jobs and their home lives. However, their efforts laid the groundwork for a landmark study of female and child wage earners conducted by the Department of Labor. The study resulted in a 19-volume publication that detailed working conditions, and their often-negative side effects, on women. Published in installments between 1910 and 1912, the document resulted in a Women’s Division within the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. After four years of mismanagement and low wages, the division’s female employees resigned. The Women’s Division consequently fizzled out of existence in 1915.

Women Weighing Wire Coils/tiles/non-collection/6/6-2-womensbureau_Women-weighing-coil_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration The Women’s Bureau investigated the working conditions in various industries around the country to help develop policies that supported the needs of female employees. Shown here are women weighing wire coils in 1919.
Around this time, some in Congress indicated their support for a separate Women’s Bureau. Senator Wesley Jones introduced a bill for a Women’s Bureau in 1916, but it died in committee. In 1917, Representative John Raker of California introduced his own bill, which met a similar fate. However, as with many congressional logjams, war finally spurred action. World War I brought large numbers of women into the workforce, as well as into new jobs and industries. Near the end of the war in 1918, Congress created the Women-in-Industry Service (WIS) Bureau in the Department of Labor. Not established as a permanent division, Congress only extended it for one year in 1919 following the end of the war.

The House Labor Committee and the Senate Committee on Education and Labor held joint hearings on three related bills for a Women’s Bureau on March 4 and 5, 1920. The witnesses included female leaders in their fields who had long advocated for women in the workforce. Among them were the former director of the WIS, Mary Van Kleeck, and Mary Anderson, Van Kleeck’s assistant at the WIS. Anderson would later be appointed as the first director of the Women’s Bureau, where she remained until 1944.

Van Kleeck testified that, given the influx of women into the workforce, it was necessary to gather facts about the women themselves, as well as the conditions in which they were working. “In asking for a women’s bureau in the Department of Labor, we are not concerned merely with the thought of having women to look after the interests of women, but in having women taking part in the work of the Department of Labor on an equal basis with men in relation to the labor problems as actually affecting both men and women, because the interests should not be separated in either particular.”

Women Ironing Laundry/tiles/non-collection/6/6-2-womensbureau_Women-doing-laundry_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Created in 1920, the Women’s Bureau studied and advocated for women in the workforce. In a photograph taken around that time, women ironed laundry.
On March 23, 1920, Representative Philip Campbell of Kansas introduced H.R. 13229 to establish a permanent Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor. The bill was referred to the Committee on Labor, which favorably reported it on March 30, 1920. Debate on the bill moved to the House Floor on April 5. Representative Campbell stated, “It is hardly compatible with the attitude of the American people toward those engaged in the industries of the country that they should not have some sympathetic way of reaching the authorities and of bringing to the attention of the country any special needs they may have.” In floor debate a few days later, Members argued that it was not economically prudent to codify what they saw as a wartime expediency measure, and that there was no need to differentiate between men and women once they had the same rights as men. Campbell countered by saying it was not only “wise but humane” for women to have some say in crafting workplace conditions that accommodated their needs.

Stenographers Poster/tiles/non-collection/6/6-2-womensbureau_Stenographers-poster_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This circa 1918 poster called on women to work as stenographers in Washington, DC. The United States’ entry into World War I brought an unprecedented number of women into the workforce and into new types of jobs and industries.
Representative Joe Cannon of Illinois believed Members were being swayed by the passionate movement around women’s suffrage, and he felt it was wise for things to “get down to normal” following the country’s “fever heat” of spending and societal tumult during the war before committing to a permanent appropriation for a Women’s Bureau in 1920. Representative William Carss of Minnesota argued perversely in favor of the bill as a way to protect women from anything that might “injure their potential motherhood” and ability to “raise a rugged, virile race of people.” Other Members scolded Cannon: he was out of touch with the times, and needed to recognize that it was no longer a choice for many women whether to stay home with the children or go to work.

Representative Raker, who submitted his second bill for a Women’s Bureau in 1919, retorted, “They must go out in the field of actual activity and earn their living. . . . Anyone who has given this subject any thought or consideration realizes that while you may speak of the father and the son representing the wife, mother, or sister that day has passed. They want and are entitled to represent themselves.” Representative Ira Hersey of Maine made a final plea for passage of the bill, stating that all other arguments aside, a permanent appropriation would allow a bureau that proved its efficacy and efficiency during the war to continue its work in the most economical way. The bill passed, 256 to 9, and became law on June 5, 1920.

The work of the Women’s Bureau contributed to national achievements, such as the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, documenting wage inequality between Black and white female workers, and the opening of the Civil Service exam to women. The Women’s Bureau also effected change on a state and local level through its studies of various industries, from cotton mills and candy making to sewing trades and department store work. One hundred years later, the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor continues to advocate for policies and laws that support working women.

Sources: RG 86, Records of the Women’s Bureau, National Archives and Records Administration; Hearings before the Joint Committees on Labor, Women’s Bureau, 66th Cong., 2nd sess. (1920); H.R. 13229, 66th Cong. (1920); Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 2nd sess. (5 April 1920): 5863–5864; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 2nd sess. (19 April 1920): 5873–5879; House Committee on Labor, To Establish a Women’s Bureau, 66th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 783 (1920); An Act To Establish in the Department of Labor a bureau to be known as the Women’s Bureau, 41 Stat. 987, 66th Cong. (1920); Judith Sealander, As Minority Becomes Majority: Federal Reaction to the Phenomenon of Women in the Workforce, 1920-1963 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983): 13–25; Mark Hendrickson, American Labor and Economic Leadership: New Capitalism from World War I to the Great Depression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Milestones: The Women’s Bureau Celebrates 65 Years of Women’s History (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 1985); “Uncurrent Events: The Woman-Power Behind the ‘Woman in Industry Service,’” FRASER, 4 March, 2019; “Our History,” Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, accessed 13 April, 2020.